By Nick Srnicek
What unites Google and Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, Siemens and GE, Uber and Airbnb? Across a wide range of sectors, these firms are transforming themselves into platforms: businesses that provide the hardware and software foundation for others to operate on. This transformation signals a major shift in how capitalist firms operate and how they interact with the rest of the economy: the emergence of platform capitalism.
This book critically examines these new business forms, tracing their genesis from the long downturn of the 1970s to the boom and bust of the 1990s and the aftershocks of the 2008 crisis. Nick Srnicek shows how the fundamental foundations of the economy are rapidly being carved up among a small number of monopolistic platforms, and how the platform introduces new tendencies within capitalism that pose significant challenges to any vision of a post-capitalist future.
Platform Capitalism will be essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how the most powerful tech companies of our time are transforming the global economy."
Table of Contents of Platform Capitalism
- The Long Downturn
- Platform Capitalism
- Great Platform Wars
About Nick Srnicek
Nick Srnicek is a lecturer in international politics at City, University of London, and co-author of the influential Accelerate Manifesto.
Niels van Doorn on Krisis; Journal for Contemporary Philosophy wrote:
"How do we make sense of the rise of platform-based businesses that are increasingly monopolising the global economy? How did they grow and morph so rapidly? What are the consequences of this business trend? And are there any alternative possibilities as we contemplate a post-capitalist future? Platform Capitalism addresses these questions through a matter-of-fact narration of the growth of platform-based businesses in the broader history of capitalist development [...] I found the book’s matter-of-fact narrative useful in two ways. First, it connects the dots between events that may initially appear to be disparate. This helps readers to understand that the current state of the global economy is an inevitable part of capitalist processes. Specifically, by positioning major tech companies as ‘economic actors within a capitalist mode of production’ (3) – instead of cultural or political actors who are informed by cultural values or motivated by the pursuit of power – readers come to understand, with economic clarity, that these companies’ actions are merely reactions to business needs. Secondly, by removing emotions from the narrative style, it allows readers to think logically (and therefore less subjectively) about possible solutions for the future. [...] According to Srnicek, platforms embody four characteristics. Firstly, they are intermediary digital infrastructures that enable different user groups – ‘customers, advertisers, service providers, producers, suppliers, and even physical objects’ – to interact (43). [...] Secondly, platforms rely and thrive on network effects. The more users a platform accumulates, the more potential it has to milk and generate value from its users and their activities on the platform. [...] Thirdly, platforms use cross-subsidisation. [...] Finally, platforms deploy the strategy of constant user engagement through attractive presentations of themselves and their offerings. [...] Srnicek goes on to identify five types of platforms, which may exist in various combinations (or in full) within a particular platform corporation. These are advertising platforms (e.g. Google, Facebook), which extract user data and capitalise on ad space; cloud platforms (e.g. Salesforce), which own and rent out hardware and software; industrial platforms (e.g. GE, Siemens), which build the necessary infrastructures ‘to transform traditional manufacturing into internet-connected processes’ (49); product platforms (e.g. Rolls Royce, Spotify), which make use of other platforms ‘to transform a traditional good into service’ (49); and lean platforms (e.g. Uber, Airbnb), which operate on a business model of minimal asset ownership. [...] Although I applaud this book for its rational and easy-to-understand portrayal of the evolution of platform capitalism, I am somewhat disappointed by the concluding section on ‘futures’ (126-29). While Srnicek does offer a possible solution to counter the expansion of platform businesses, which is to create public platforms ‘owned and controlled by the people’ (128), this section pales in comparison to the rest of the book in terms of its depth of analysis and extent of elaboration. "
Bruce Robinson on Marx & Philosophy Review of Books wrote:
"In Platform Capitalism, Srnicek offers his readers a sharp, concise, and historically sensitive account of what is and isn’t new about companies that mobilize platforms both as a technological architecture and a business model for gaining a competitive advantage and to create novel forms of value. In doing so, he usefully counters much of the hype that has inevitably accumulated around the platform concept, yet – as I will argue below – his focus on platform companies as primarily economic actors also obscures a number of ways in which these companies, and platform capitalism more generally, are transforming societies on a global scale. Srnicek justifies his narrow approach in the book’s introduction, by distinguishing it from existing studies on the digital economy which, despite their numerous contributions, have neglected 'economic issues around ownership and profitability' or have detached such issues from their history (Srnicek 2). In response, Platform Capitalism 'aims to supplement these other perspectives by giving an economic history of capitalism and digital technology, while recognizing the diversity of economic forms and the competitive tensions inherent in the contemporary economy' (2-3). The three chapters that comprise Srnicek’s slender volume realize this aim by subsequently looking at the past, present, and future of platform capitalism. Ultimately, according to Srnicek, this conceptual approach 'is important for how we think strategically and develop political tactics to transform society' (7), although his analysis unfortunately stops short of developing such tactics in any detail. After considering the arguments put forward in each chapter, I will suggest that this omission can be partly attributed to the book’s lack of engagement with what exceeds the parameters of its business-centric assessment."
"It aims to give ‘an economic history of capitalism and digital technology while recognising the diversity of economic forms and competitive tensions inherent in the contemporary economy’. (3) It takes as its framework a stance that is anti-capitalist without being explicitly Marxist. [...] Srnicek employs a useful typology of platforms which enables us to see not merely the heterogeneous applications of the platform model and their differing uses of data but also their differences in terms of the processes of value production and capital accumulation. [...] One of the virtues of this book is that it has a proportionate view of platform capitalism, neither seeing it as ushering in a new phase of capitalism (7-8) nor as portending its final crisis. Unlike his other writings, it is not based on an uncritical technological enthusiasm. His analysis is that the further development of platform capitalism faces serious challenges – through declining advertising revenues or the exhaustion of the potential of outsourcing – but that the already established monopolies can still expand into new areas and bolster their dominant positions.
The book devotes only a couple of short pages to discussion of how the platform model might be used outside the framework of encroaching capitalist monopolies. It rejects platform cooperatives as a solution on the traditional grounds that they involve competition and self-exploitation under capitalism, factors that are made worse by the network effects, access to resources and monopolistic control of existing platforms. Srnicek’s alternative in the book – to set up platforms as public utilities ‘owned and controlled by the people’ but supported by the state’s resources (128) – faces the same problem of network effects and competition as long as the existing platforms remain in private hands. Their collective ownership is thus a precondition for the democratic and socially useful development of the technology (as he acknowledges in a recent Guardian article). [...] ‘Platform Capitalism’ provides a useful introduction to a dynamic sector of contemporary capitalism that has become directly influential in our everyday lives. It contains an extensive and up to date bibliography. However it is too short to meet its ambitious goal of being ‘an economic history of capitalism and digital technology’(3), although it covers many recent developments in depth and the material included in it is valuable. It also raises a number of questions which should be the subject of further research and debate in analysing the consequences of and alternatives to the continuing adoption of new technological forms by capital."